Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Answer: Musicians travels--how did they get from A to B?

 We think of travel as easy... 

Bach and Chopin, both travellers. But how did they travel?
P/C Wikimedia sources.

... but back in the day, getting from point A to point B could be difficult and lengthy.  If was to travel from Paris to Majorca, it would be a 2 hour flight, costing around $100.  I could leave in the morning and be there by lunch.  

But what was it like for my musical heros, Bach and Chopin?  They both made long trips.  I bet it wasn't quite as simple as buying a ticket online and then taking the bus to the airport.  

Our Challenges for this week are: 

1. Frederic Chopin traveled from Paris to Majorca (also spelled as Mallorca) in 1838 with the hope of improving his health. It was a disaster from beginning to end, but as I was looking at a map of the Mediterranean, I wondered about he got there--it's not exactly around the corner. How did he travel to Majorca?  Obviously he took a ship, but from where? And how?  How long did it take? Now I'd just take a ferry, but was there regularly scheduled service in 1838? How did he travel back when he returned in 1839?  

2. Johann Sebastian Bach also had a famous trip that left me wondering about the details. In 1705 he traveled in the winter from Arnstadt (where he was living and working) to Lübeck to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ at his parish church.  That is also not exactly around the corner. It's nearly 400 km (248 miles)!  How did Bach get from Arnstadt to Lübeck and back?  How long did it take him to travel? 

I'm going to answer this in a short and sweet post.  If you read through the comments, you'll see that the SRS Regulars did a great job of finding some quality resources.  

Frederic Chopin & George Sand:  I didn't expect people to look at Google Arts & Culture story about Chopin and Sand's travels, but it's a nice find. From that site we learned that on October 31, 1838 they arrived in the South of France to embark on Le Phenicien, a steamboat headed for Barcelona. They stayed there for a few days before taking another steamboat (a weekly "packet boat") from Barcelona to the port city of Palma on Majorca.  They stayed on the island, suffering through a difficult winter until February 13, 1839 when they returned to Barcelona, and then onward to Marseille and Paris.  

Interestingly, this article was written by the people at the Museum Celda de Frédéric Chopin y George Sand, they're certainly a credible site (and certainly a museum I hope to visit one day). They tell the sad story of Chopin, Sand, and Sand's two children who came along for what they hoped would be a holiday trip.  That kind of holiday never quite materialized.  

Ramon was the first to find that they took the steamship El Mallorquin on their return to Barcelona and located this pic of the ship that they took to and from Majorca!  The trip was about 12 hours each way, depending, of course, on weather.  But since it used both sail and steam, it was a reliable means of transport.  

I took a somewhat different approach than most.  I figured that biographies of Chopin would be a good place to look for travel details.  Naturally, I turned to Google Books and did the obvious search for [ Chopin biography ] This brought me to a number of books about his life, and while many of them are in preview mode (you can only see snippets of the text), searching in the book taught me that while they took a regularly scheduled steamship (aka a "packet" boat), on their return trip, they had to share the Mallorquin with a large herd of black pigs, which was distressing for everyone as the captain insisted that Chopin, Sand, and the children remain below decks for the duration of the trip. The pigs were clearly the important passengers here!  (See Chopin in Paris by Tad Szulz, 1999, for the story of their passage to/from Spain.)  

I also learned to my surprise that George Sand wrote a book about the experienceA Winter in Majorca (original title:  Un hiver à Majorque, which you can read in French at the Hathi Trust or in English at the Gutenberg Project).  In there you can read about the trip back from Majorca to Barcelona: sounds horrible... 

When we returned from Majorca to Barcelona in March, it was stiflingly hot; however, it was not possible for us to set foot on deck. Even if we had braved the danger of having our legs swallowed by some ill-tempered pig, the captain would doubtless not have allowed us to thwart them by our presence. They kept very quiet during the first hours; but, in the middle of the night, the pilot noticed that they were in a very gloomy sleep, and that they seemed to be prey to a black melancholy...  

Naturally, this experience made me think I should do something similar for the Bach trip.  But first, I wanted an overview of Bach's life and how this trip fit into the overall story.  

Bach's life is incredibly well-known and well-documented and overviews are easy to find.  So it was easy to learn that Bach moved to Arnstadt in August of 1703 with a good salary and a top-notch organ in the chapel.  He stayed there until 1707, gainfully employed, although a bit unhappy with the quality of the musicians he worked with there.  

While in Arnstadt he learned of the spectacular, flamboyant playing, and compositional style of Dietrich Buxtehude, a famous musician working in Lübeck at the time. Bach needed a way to stretch his compositional wings--what better way than by studying the music of Buxtehude?  

So, in October 1705, at age 20, he asked for (and received) a month’s leave from his post, and walked to Lübeck (more than 200 miles [300 km]). He did not return until about the middle of January 1706, some 16 weeks later. Reasonably, his employers complained about his extended absence. 

Our Challenge was to learn more about the details of that long trip.  Did he really walk 200 miles in the middle of a German winter?  How long did it take him to go back and forth?  

A quick search in Google Books finds not only multiple biographies, but even a book specifically about his journey, Something Of His Art: Walking to Lübeck with J. S. Bach by Horatio Clare. 

At the time, there were coaches between the towns, but mostly they were expensive.  The bios agree in believing Bach probably walked the Old Salt Route, a well-worn trade route through northern Germany (between Lüneburg on northward to Lübeck) that had been in use since medieval times. It was far more common for people to undertake long journeys by foot than it is now, but even so, the dedication of the 20-year-old composer is striking. Traveling north in October and then returning in the heart of January had to have been a long and chilly trip.  

In reading through these biographies (e.g., Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 2002) we learn that this wasn't the first time Bach had done a long trip by foot.  When he was 14, he walked with his buddy Georg Erdmann from Ohrdruf to Lüneberg, a distance of 200 miles, to get jobs as choristers.  

So a walk of about the same distance as a more mature 20 year old wouldn't have phased him.  Here's the walking directions from Google Earth these days: 

Google Maps claims that it's a 78 hour walk, but remember that the days get short in October and November, let alone January.  At best this is a decent 10-day hike, and probably a bit more--let's guess at 10 to 14 days if the weather is good.  And while we know the way would have been reasonably well-marked, he still had to walk through the Harz mountains (see the green area in the above map, and consider this image from Google Earth of the walk) which are fairly wild now, and would have still held a few wolves and dangerous folk:  

We could go on.. but basically it was a long walk that took Bach from villages and well-worn paths into the Harz forests and then along a trade route that had inns, villages, and places to hang out for an evening.  It's a walk I'd like to do some day, although I hope to do the Camino de Santiago first!  

SearchResearch Lessons

The key lesson for this Challenge has been to remember: 

1. Look beyond simple web resources.  Remember that even before there was an internet, people would carefully collect information and write biographies.  As we saw in the case of Chopin's trip, they might even novelize the event!  Google Books (and your libraries) are great resources to get to high quality content.  

Search on! 

P.S.  Sorry about the delay in getting this posted: this has been an unexpectedly strange week.

I'm trying to get back on schedule by posting this Challenge Answer today.  I'll give the second part of the answer to the previous week's Challenge soon. (That is, how to get searches to run on a schedule.)







  1. I found this resource (which Arthur also found)

    which gave the information others found. However, it also stated

    “On arriving on the island, in Palma November 8, 1838 at 11:30am, there were no inns to be found (none on the island at all, if Sand’s colourful, though malicious travel memoir Winter in Mallorca (1842) can be believed – which it can’t!).”

    I had thought that George Sand’s book Winter in Majorca might contain some descriptions of their travels. Google Books did not have a searchable copy in English but I found one at

    I searched using: Barcelona; Palma (assuming they would land there); cargo ship; sail; Mediterranean. I was specifically looking for the duration of their voyage. I could not find that information in the book.

    While Mme Sand’s book is an original document, based on the adjectives “colourful” and “malicious” we can’t be sure it is accurate, if the writer’s intention was not to be so (it is a novel). How credible is the Toronto source’s opinion of Sands’ novel?

  2. El Balear/"El Rey Don Jaime"
    the move from sea to air… George & Fred were just about a 100 years too early…
    what if Bach could have used ZOOM? less wear & tear on die Hunde/Füße
    what was plane travel like during the Spanish Flu? (see * below)
    plane meets island
    wars are complicating factors
    the "dark" clouds…
    you avoided the stampede
    not quite what was said…
    *last time
    fwiw, am feeling a little canceled/erased… was there a reason - HR? - rhetorical

  3. Speaking of walking across Europe – I enjoyed this book (and its sequels) about a different kind of foot travel in a different time across what would have been a different Europe:

    I hate to bring this up, but second sentence “If was to travel from Paris to Majorca,…” is missing a subject.

    Regarding Bach’s state of mind, according to the OED, the verb “to phase” means “To organize, carry out, or introduce in phases” and its homonym “to faze” means “To discompose, disturb”.

  4. Thanks Dr Russell!

    Amazing stories and Challenges that without you, I am sure I will never know about. Incredible journeys. And with them, new knowledge and new tools. Also, new discoveries to use in day to day life. As an example, I found an interesting YouTube channel about Music ( Jaime Altozano.) It's difficult to understand for me, even in Spanish due to Music language

    Also being reading the comments about Chatgpt and yesterday, found Neeva (created by Ex Googlers.)

    I'm still trying to understand and trying Neeva. ChatGpt still don't know how. I think Dr. Russell is and will be always a fantastic Master in any of these new companies we are reading these days. The Joy of Search is always needed. And people, even today still think search is part of the past!